The autopsy of Terence Crutcher, the unarmed black man shot and killed by Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby on September 16th, has revealed that he had PCP in his system at the time of his death. The information that PCP had been found inside his vehicle had been public knowledge well before the autopsy report came in. Phencyclidine, also known as Angel Dust, is classified as a dissociative drug. It is a white powder whose symptoms include “numbness of the extremities, slurred speech, and loss of coordination,” according to Drugs.com. In more severe cases it can cause “auditory hallucinations, image distortion, and severe mood disorders” or even “acute anxiety and a feeling of impending doom.” This information at least explains the erratic behavior officers claimed to have witnessed in Crutcher, but it does not excuse their response.
As media outlets and the general public react to this news, one message must be made clear: the fact that Crutcher possessed drugs justifies his arrest, not his death. In this case, at least, it appears the courts agree. An affidavit released by the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office has said that Shelby reacted “unreasonably by escalating the situation.” The office contests her claim that Crutcher had reached into the window of his SUV before she had perceived him to be a threat. The affidavit says that Shelby was “not able to see any weapons or bulge indicating a weapon was present.” Meanwhile, Crutcher’s family and attorneys maintain that the SUV’s windows were rolled up or else there would not be blood splatters on the glass. Both sets of footage released by the Tulsa Police Department, captured from a patrol car dash-cam and a police helicopter, seem to depict Terence with his hands in the air moments before he was shot.
Whatever ruling the courts reach, the involvement of PCP should not play a major part in their decision. It is the jury’s job to discern whether or not Terence posed a very real threat to Officer Shelby when she pulled the trigger. It is not their job to decide whether or not possessing and/or using drugs is worthy of a death sentence. On both these points I would of course argue no: Crutcher didn’t seem to pose a real threat, nor does drug usage warrant such a harsh punishment. If anything, its only more heartbreaking to hear the kind of panicked state Terence must have been in during his confrontation with the police, and to know that he very much lacked control over his actions. Officers should be properly trained to recognize when an individual is in a drug-induced state of confusion and when that person is actually a threat to their safety. The Tulsa Police Department has behaved relatively admirably by holding Shelby accountable for her fatal overreaction to Crutcher’s actions, and soon we’ll see if the justice system does the same. Whatever their verdict, I just hope the jury does not put it upon themselves to excuse the death of a man simply based on their judgments of his character.